Athleisure comfort drives apparel purchasing decision

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The athleisure category is proving attractive to consumers as it offers comfort for them to carry out a range of activities, experts say

Apparel retailers, brands and manufacturers have been urged to respond to consumer demand for "comfort" clothing that fits their changing lifestyles and is driving the growth of the GBP$2.5bn athleisure industry.

The Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI) hosted an event last week on 'Athleisure – the new smart casual?', which saw speakers from the likes of Hugo Boss, Marks and Spencer and Lycra take to the stage and discuss reasons as to why the athleisure segment is becoming such a hit with customers.

While based on items traditionally worn by gym-goers such as leggings and hoodies, athleisure also draws on elements of high fashion.

The sports apparel and footwear segment was worth US$270bn in 2015 and is expected to grow 30% by 2020 according to research from Morgan Stanley.

Claire O'Neill, marketing manager for Lycra, asserts there is a US$350bn opportunity to be had as a result. "It is a positive trajectory, it is going the right way, it is growing. It is an exciting new lifestyle trend," she told the audience.

O'Neill explained more people today are concerned about their health and wellness and will visit gyms and health clubs. However, with more demanding lifestyles there is also a need for convenience from their clothing. Many people will do the school run straight after the gym, she said, or they will cycle into work or even do yoga on their lunch break – so want to look good and be comfortable while carrying out a range of activities. 

"Only 50% of consumers are buying activewear for sports use," she said. "Millennials are less about owning things and more about experiencing things. Athleisure appeals because of the freedom and flexibility it gives you to experience a number of new things."

However, she noted, for athleisure followers, looking good is still an important aspect, mainly driven by the growth of social media and people – in particular celebrities – posting pictures of themselves exercising or engaging in social activities in high quality and aesthetically pleasing gear.

"Athleisure is about looking your best and being your optimised self. It's not putting on a pair of slouchy pants or leggings. It's this mindset that drives purchasing decisions."

Her feelings were echoed by Marks & Spencer's T51 Active designer, Angela Cody, who said the old way of segmenting clothing into casualwear and formalwear appeared to be phasing out as all elements were starting to draw in aspects of the athleisure category. From a design perspective, for example, this could look like a stripe running down the sides of a pair of formal trousers. 

"We want to hybridise the everyday-wear with sportswear," she asserted. "Take the technology and innovation from sportswear and bring it into our everyday wardrobes." Cody gave the example of a traditional pair of trousers that might lean on the athleisure category by bringing in an element of stretch to make it "more comfortable for the person wearing it".

Responding on whether athleisure was a passing phase, she said she believed it was "not a trend" but rather a nod from the fashion industry to a shift in consumer lifestyles. "They [consumers] find it far too comfortable to give up. I think it's important we give them clothing that fits their lifestyle."